Sustainable Missoula: What being a parent has taught me about uncertain times

Abby Huseth and her son Soren hiking Glacier National Park.

On the rare occasions these days when I have a chance to catch up with my friends who are also parents, our conversations all seem to start the same way. “So, how are you?” we ask. “Doing okay, I guess, aside from, you know, all the stuff happening in the world right now …”

The conversation can go two ways from there, depending on how much sleep we got last night, how much caffeine we’ve had, how work is going, the morning’s breaking news, or any number of other factors. We either spend the next 20 minutes ranting about the state of the world, or we share a tired nod of mutual acknowledgement and skip over to safer topics like families or work.

What we almost never talk about directly, though? What it’s really like to be a parent right now.

The coronavirus pandemic has touched everyone in different ways, but there’s no doubt parents have their own unique set of challenges, from navigating online school, to calculating the risks of childcare, to juggling work and family obligations with only 24 hours in the day.

Numerous news articles have reminded us that the sacrifices required to keep families afloat tend to disproportionately impact women, and that people of color and lower income families are far more likely to face much more desperate dilemmas: how to get food on the table; finding safe and stable housing; paying for medical bills. This recent Washington Post headline sums it up this way: “The Covid-19 recession is the most unequal in history.”

These day-to-day struggles of being a parent during a pandemic are real and devastating.

But there’s another level of struggle, too – one that can be even harder to talk about, because there are no policies or procedures that can resolve it. It’s just the paradox that parents through time immemorial have had to make peace with (on steroids, because it’s 2020): the responsibility of raising children on a planet with an uncertain future.

While the coronavirus pandemic rages, the climate crisis has only become more urgent. Catastrophic fires, floods and storms have devastated entire communities. The climate emergency poses an existential threat of a magnitude that is hard to comprehend, and we know that if we don’t turn this ship around – fast – the scale of climate disasters we’ve seen in 2020 will become the rule, not the exception.

When everything feels like it’s falling apart around us, how can we as parents possibly believe the next generation will be able to overcome the mess we’re leaving them, much less thrive? How do we reconcile the mundane tasks we need to do to get our families through each day, with the knowledge that we are living in the midst of a planetary emergency? Is there reason for hope, or are we just foolish?

As a mom of a two year old with another baby due in December, I wrestle with these existential questions every day. Living in this paradox is hard; I’d love to have x-ray vision into the future, or at least a clear formula for success. But despite the promises of child rearing “experts”, certainty has never been part of the deal of being a parent, and is definitely not now.

The paradox of being a parent, though, can also bring unexpected gifts. One invaluable lesson I keep learning is that of humility: any mother or father who has dared wade into the tornado of a toddler tantrum knows the feeling of having zero clue what you are doing. All you can do is stay present, put your expectations aside, and keep trying things until something changes.

This humility has helped me be better at both raising the next generation and fighting alongside them for a livable future. The world right now is scary, for kids and adults alike. But as much as we need action and determination right now, we also need humility. Worrying about the future is understandable, but it can cloud our vision of what’s possible right now.

Humility can help remind us that the weight of the world is not on our shoulders alone; we are part of a vast and growing movement and all of us have a role. If we can stay present to the pain of this moment, while keeping the potential of a more just, equitable and sustainable future in our field of vision, we can take the next steps even if we can’t see the top of the mountain.

Whether you’re a parent or not, each of us can accept the uncertainty of the future and embrace our own potential to shape it. So let’s tell our stories, share our worries and grief, vote like our kids’ future depends on it, and keep building the kind of communities the world so desperately needs.

Abby Huseth is the Outreach Director for Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Oct 5 — Turning the Corner on Climate Change — an online conversation with Bill McKibben hosted by Northern Plains Resource Council. 5pm. All welcome.

October 7-9: Montana Nature Week, hosted by Montana Natural History Center.

October 17. Rattlesnake Creek Revegetation. Sign up for a shift.

October 17. Bee Hive Health & Winterization Workshop with Missoula Urban Demonstration Project. 10 am to noon. Info here.

October 21. How to Go Solar happy hour zoom panel with Climate Smart Missoula, Montana Renewable Energy Association & friends. 4pm. Registration details coming soon.

Through October. It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market are happening. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

Now through November 3. Work to elect climate leaders. And make sure you have a plan to vote!

Find more activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar.